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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Intrigue and the Architect

St. Louis Gateway Arch, photo by Beth Grant*

Being the granddaughter of a Norwegian American architect who moved in the early 1970s from Long Beach, California, to (the middle of nowhere) Nebraska, I am personally familiar with architects who make drastic decisions that don't always make sense. Sometimes it's what we don't know about people that make for the truly grand tale though, and it takes a lot of interest and patience to uncover clues. Enter in to the life of Eero Saarinen, and of the woman who has spent over 20 years exploring his life. There are curiosities to be found, and even a link to secret war rooms during WWII.... 

Mina Marafet is the curator of this show.

The current exhibition at The Nordic Heritage Museum focuses on the architect and designer, Eero Saarinen, who was born in Finland and moved to the US at the age of 13. The child of the famous Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, it is interesting to note that the two of them shared both a birthday, and later, a profession. With an artist for a mother, it's clear that he had a strong foundation on which he could (unknowingly) become an innovator of 20th Century Design.

During the member reception I nearly missed the guided tour given by curator and design researcher Mina Marefat PhD who has spent decades on this project. She's an architect, urban designer, architectural historian and professor who teaches at Georgetown University in Washington DC. As such, she really made the show *pop*. I was able to briefly speak with her after her presentation. She is poised, intelligent and lovely.

As for Eero Saarinin, in addition to designing famous buildings that we know of such as Dulles Airport, the St. Louis Arch, and the MIT Chapel, the jump start of his career was really in winning a competition for a building that was never even built. MOMA had over 400 entrants for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art project. Hands down, Eero's team won (he was the mind behind it) and its design remains an important chronicle of its time.

You can see that most of the photos that I took don't show his buildings, yet rather, furniture! That classic one legged Scandinavian style of chair that we know so well was actually designed by him, and Mina said that he was the first person to ever design one. A friend of Charles Eames, the two of them often collaborated on furniture designs, and even houses such as this one. I find all of it very fascinating.

From Mina's research we learned that in 1942 Eero moved to Washington D.C. She immediately questioned why he did so, and it took over 10 years for the information she requested to be declassified. When it was, she was surprised to find that he was actually a member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which was the forerunner to the CIA. He designed their state of the art war rooms and even created models of buildings that they planned to blow up in the war. A man of his word, he never personally spoke of this time, and Mina was the first to uncover it! How does one even keep such a secret?

Eero Designed the TWA Terminal-- now JFK.

As for my grandfather, Marvin Rosvold, I know that the root of his major move to Nebraska was the fact that he was given an airplane to fly. Ironically, he had joined the Air Force the same year that Eero moved to Washington DC (to join the OSS). As a WWII P47 fighter pilot, he was shot down on his 65th mission during the Battle of Normandy, yet I never even knew this while he was alive. Luckily, he survived and went on to fly 12 more missions. In later years he designed airports, military bases, churches, and the American Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam (later destroyed). My mother likes to say that my creative streak comes from him. True, true, I'd say...

If there was one thing I would like to see more of in the exhibit on Eero Saarinen, it would be more photos and possibly actual models of his architectural designs. Mina mentioned that very few originals survived and that recreating them would cost thousands of dollars. In the end, while I learned a lot about his life, his design philosophy, and his furniture design, I was left wanting more concrete visuals of buildings. He was a prolific man, and since my interest was piqued, I've found many images of his works while searching online myself.

Catch this Eero Saarinen exhibition through August 19, 2012

*As a fan of Instagram, I took all but the first photo myself.  One of my favorite Insta-friends is Beth Grant who emailed me the St. Louis Arch photo. Isn't it stunning? In our exchange about another photo of hers, I learned that her grandfather helped to build it--  what a great twist to my tale!

As I get to the end of this wordy post, I'd like to say thanks to all the great men out there. It is Father's Day weekend after all! Let's celebrate the guys...

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